My Lords, this is a timely debate ahead of Commonwealth Week, which starts on Monday and provides a platform for countries around the world to join together in celebration of the links that they share as members of the Commonwealth. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs recently affirmed in his response to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report on the role and future of the Commonwealth, the Government are committed to strengthening our engagement with, and our role within, the Commonwealth. A strong Commonwealth is important to the national interests of all its member states. It can help us to promote democratic values, good governance and prosperity. This is no longer the British Commonwealth but a network of like-minded nations with shared history, values and interests within which the UK plays an active and leading role.
One of the greatest challenges we face is ensuring that the Commonwealth keeps pace with today's changing world. Much work has already been done to respond to this challenge and the UK has been active in this. Our Commonwealth policy over the past two years has focused on modernising and improving the organisation's internal institutions and strengthening respect for its values. We are pleased that modernisation discussions that started before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth in 2011 reached a conclusion last year, and that the heads have endorsed a number of reforms including the new Commonwealth charter. That we were able to agree so many of these reforms is a testament to the work of my right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Commonwealth and my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford, whose speech will follow mine. In some ways, this debate is a celebration of my noble friend's two and a half years in the FCO as Commonwealth Minister, to which I pay tribute.
I hope that all noble Lords will join me in welcoming the adoption of the Commonwealth charter, which we see as one of the most important outcomes from the Commonwealth modernisation process. The charter conveys clearly the values that the Commonwealth stands for, bringing together commitments set out in previous declarations and affirmations. Next week, the charter will be presented to Her Majesty the Queen as head of the Commonwealth and launched across the Commonwealth.
For the first time in its 64-year history, the Commonwealth now has a single document setting out the core values and aspirations of its members, and it is all the more significant because it has come at a time when human rights and democratic values are demanded more vocally than ever by citizens across the world. It is now important that we work collectively to raise the charter's profile, both within the UK and throughout the Commonwealth, to embed it within the Commonwealth's architecture and ensure that all its members uphold those values. We support the Commonwealth Secretary-General's call for members to launch the charter nationally during next week's Commonwealth Week. We are delighted that debates are taking place in both Houses and we are in touch with Commonwealth, civil society and youth organisations to promote the charter in the UK.
We recognise, too, that there need to be mechanisms in place to ensure that all Commonwealth countries support the values that they have agreed to in the charter. We strongly supported the reform of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, adopted in Perth, giving the group more teeth to respond to violations of Commonwealth values. Through its timely and robust response to the political crisis in the Maldives last year, the group demonstrated that it could work in new ways and make a positive contribution to international reconciliation efforts. We would like to see the group demonstrate that it can play a valuable and effective role in addressing a range of situations of concern.
Our work on the modernisation agenda has helped to focus the Commonwealth on the importance of democracy and respect for core values. This creates the conditions in which businesses can flourish by giving them confidence to invest in trade. That in turn creates more jobs and drives greater prosperity. This is what the Prime Minister has called the "golden thread": the link between the rule of law, effective but limited government, strong civil institutions, well protected property rights, open markets and successful and sustainable economic development. The Commonwealth Week theme this year, "Opportunity through Enterprise", is particularly relevant for encouraging innovation at this time of global economic challenge.
Commonwealth members share principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, and we have similar legal systems. These provide solid foundations for doing business and a platform for trade, investment, development and, all pulled together, prosperity. Some studies have estimated this Commonwealth effect of a shared legal and regulatory market framework to be between 20% and 50% in trade advantage. As it should, the UK out-trades its European comparators-Germany, Italy and France-in trade with Commonwealth countries.
The Commonwealth network has influence in nearly every international country grouping, making it a key vehicle for promoting regional trade integration. India, South Africa, Canada, Australia and the UK make up a quarter of the G20, the world's premier global economic forum at present. The Commonwealth exports over £3 trillion of goods and services a year, so the potential for all of us is great; but for trade with Commonwealth countries truly to flourish the Commonwealth needs to encourage conditions that will allow it to do so. One example is to remove barriers to trade, such as unnecessary red tape and, sadly too often, corruption.
Trade is not the only way to increase prosperity. The Department for International Development's Bilateral Aid Review in 2011 confirmed that many Commonwealth states still need international aid and support. DfID has increased the proportion of bilateral programme expenditure to Commonwealth countries. Total DfID bilateral spend in them is projected to be £1.8 billion in 2012-13. Countries also benefit from regional funding.
We are working, too, to increase the Commonwealth's engagement with Britain's overseas territories that share many of the challenges facing the small Commonwealth members. The British Government are the largest financial contributor to Commonwealth institutions. Our contributions amount to approximately £40 million annually, about a third of the institution's costs. Of this, DfID provides around £34 million to support the Commonwealth's development work. We are investing in the Commonwealth, not simply declaring our commitment. From 2011 to 2015, DfID will also provide £87 million for Commonwealth scholarships for developing countries. The FCO provides support for Chevening scholarships to around 700 students a year for over 116 countries, including many Commonwealth ones.
DfID's Multilateral Aid Review in 2011 concluded that one of the Commonwealth's key strengths is its unique network of networks, as my noble friend Lord Howell has often told us. It saw that the Commonwealth's secretariat has a key platform for partnerships, and as a leading voice on global issues and a niche development assistance provider. To continue to add value when there are many larger and often better resourced development providers, the Secretariat needs to improve its efficiency and effectiveness and to carve out a niche role for itself. The secretariat's strategic plan, another product of the modernisation agenda, must play a vital role to make this a reality. Swift and unequivocal agreement on, and implementation of, a realistic and more targeted plan is key to guaranteeing continued donor funding for its programmes.
This year offers many opportunities to drive forward work on the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Youth Ministers Meeting in Papua New Guinea in April will give young people an opportunity to express their views on current issues and discuss the post-2015 millennium development goals agenda, an area of work in which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is strongly engaged in his role as co-chair of the High Level Panel. Sri Lanka will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November. No decisions have yet been made about UK attendance at this event. Ahead of that meeting we will of course talk to Sri Lanka, as we would to any host, about demonstrating its commitment to upholding Commonwealth values of good governance and respect for human rights.
I am sure that all in this House look forward to the UK hosting the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. The games are important, not least because they are as much about promoting Commonwealth values, a key element of the Commonwealth brand, as they are about building prosperity, celebrating sport and deepening links between young people and the Commonwealth nations.
Next year we will also begin to commemorate the centenary of the Great War-the First World War, as we now call it-in which the then British Empire called on the resources of all its dominions and colonies. There were 1.5 million Indians in the world's largest volunteer army, hundreds of thousands of Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders as well as others from South Africa, the West Indies, and east and west Africa. The shared commemoration of common experience -some of it heroic, some of it bitter and ill planned-will also remind us of our common heritage.
This Government came into office with the determination to reinvigorate the Commonwealth and Britain's relationship with the Commonwealth and its member states. It is our firm belief that we should capitalise on all the networks and relationships at our disposal in order to promote our prosperity, stability and security and to contribute to a more prosperous and stable global order. We have seen notable progress and, through the modernisation discussions, a clearer vision of where the Commonwealth's real advantages lie. The Commonwealth charter is a strong statement of the organisation's values and we should collectively look to raise its profile, but we recognise that the Commonwealth's future credibility is linked to its ability to uphold and protect these values as set out in the charter. We remain committed to ensuring that the Commonwealth and its members live up to these values. If we continue to push forward the reform process, I am confident that we can sustain the Commonwealth as an invaluable global network. The interest in joining the Commonwealth that a number of prospective members are evincing is an indication of the continued vitality of the institution. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his kind reference. I am looking forward to hearing the words of the right reverend and noble Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth. I gather it is not strictly speaking a maiden speech, but I look forward to it with great anticipation. The noble and right reverend Lord is joining us on what Her Majesty has called the platform of the future, and his voice will be eagerly listened to on these affairs.
"the best vision of what its 21st century economy could become", is,
"a Britain which rediscovers the Asian and wider global links that propelled the country's economic growth in the 19th century and could do so again".
That is entirely right. It is not a dream but a practical vision. Here, in what we now call the emerging economies and powers, is where our future prosperity and destiny clearly lie. That something that I-not only I, of course -have been saying for 20 years.
The Commonwealth network is a vital and central part of this totally new landscape and this new scene. I once described the Commonwealth as the "necessary network", in the sense that if it did not exist we would certainly have to invent something very like it. My right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary was showing commendable prescience when a year or so ago he described the Commonwealth as,
"a cornerstone of our foreign policy".
The peoples of the Commonwealth are family, not foreigners. Commonwealth Governments may be unfriendly at times, awkward, difficult or, frankly, even hostile, but these are family matters, not foreign policy matters. Today's Commonwealth is an all-powerful network concept. The Governments and policy-making establishments in a number of countries may not have fully understood this but, outside Government, the peoples, businesses and civil societies of the Commonwealth nations certainly have. It is both people-driven and driven by the magnetism of shared values, language and culture, a network of peoples and societies as much as of Governments and states-possibly even more so.
The Commonwealth is of course a generator of soft power linkages and contacts on an unparalleled scale. That is crucial to our national interests here. It used to be said that trade follows the flag. Today, the situation is that trade, capital flows and investment, inward and outward, follow the softening-up of markets through the intertwining of cultures, languages, social contacts, professions and common interests, all nowadays instantly and continuously communicated. This can be even more important than winning orders through one-off trade missions.
The Commonwealth family has evolved as a design of great intricacy, subtlety and complexity, and is a true reflection of a very complex world. That has not been so for 20 years past. So completely were Commonwealth markets washed out of British concerns in the previous century that, even today, it is frankly very hard to come by any statistics of what is now happening with incredible speed across the global trade and investment pattern. Most figures are gloriously out of date. However, we know that exports to Commonwealth countries have jumped by 120% in the past decade, and much more if one just looks at services. We know that a fast-growing Commonwealth GDP is poised to overtake the GDP of the entire European Union, and that intra-Commonwealth trade has been rising fast. We know that vast new consumer markets are opening up in India, south Asia, parts of Africa and Latin America. We know that thanks in part to the new shale oil and gas revolution, which is totally transforming the world's energy balance, many African countries now face a far brighter future. We know that countries like Australia and Canada, with whom we now co-locate embassies-which is excellent news-and Malaysia are turning out to be both our best allies and powerful sources of finance for our investment needs.
It should be no surprise that other countries want to join what is clearly seen as one of the world's best clubs, with clear advantages for its members. Of course they want to join. Anyone can see that the Commonwealth badge of trust and commitment to the rule of law, once earned, are good for business, and I hope that the new Commonwealth charter will make it very much more so. As the noble Lord rightly said, a string of countries have expressed interest in being associated with the Commonwealth. Could the Republic of Ireland even be among them? I have had clear signs of interest from Dublin that suggest that it could.
Most important of all are the links of learning and education at all levels, and the personal contact and friendship that these bring to ever corner of the Commonwealth system. We know that this is where the real spread of sympathies, values and good business and trade begins. It is a similar story in area after area: legal and judicial systems, administration, medicine, accountancy, the creative arts and science. The Commonwealth may no longer be Anglocentric, but this is where our interests and influence radiate out and where our readymade UK opportunities truly lie.
This is really our Great British repositioning. This must be our strategy and our narrative. Not everyone yet sees or grasps what has happened, or how a transformed Commonwealth coincides again with our global future and interests and makes for us a vast asset. However, it is here that our energies need to be directed as never before if we want to survive and prosper in a thoroughly dangerous and uncertain world.
My Lords, it is good to follow the noble Lord, a fine Commonwealth advocate, who must blush at the tributes made to him in the FAC's report published last November on the Commonwealth. With him, I look forward to the contribution from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams, my compatriot from Swansea.
Of course, the Commonwealth stands for the highest ideals of human rights, the rule of law and good governance, summed up in successive declarations-Singapore; Harare; and, finally, the Charter of the Commonwealth, which was agreed last December. It is unique and diverse, with valuable soft-power networks. Small countries, such as the Caribbean and Pacific islands and the members of the overseas territories, walk that much taller as members of the club. For us and for them, the commonwealth of networks-the unofficial Commonwealth-is of importance. Of course, as parliamentarians, we pay tribute to the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
Given those high aspirations, it is hardly surprising if the reality sometimes falls short of the ideal. This is well illustrated by the Perth CHOGM's response to the Eminent Persons Group's recommendations, particularly the failure to agree the proposed human rights commissioner, who should be independent. CMAG is not enough. Of course, there is the Commonwealth's failure on election monitoring because of the reluctance to criticise other members of the club.
What about Commonwealth mediation in disputes involving other Commonwealth countries? Certainly the Secretary-General, Emeka Anyaoku, played a significant role in helping to keep the new South Africa within the Commonwealth.
As for today, one sees the impotence of the Commonwealth on the problems of Kashmir, Cyprus, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Recent events show a lack of mutual understanding between Commonwealth countries. On
There is, of course, a great rivalry between Commonwealth India and China in the Indian Ocean, where China seeks to build a "string of pearls" of bases. Yet on
The current debate about the choice of location of the next CHOGM is instructive, and was rather glossed over by the Minister in his opening remarks. Is priority to be given to the values of the Commonwealth or to avoiding the displeasure of Sri Lanka, as the Foreign Affairs Committee report stated? Surely the Government cannot sit indefinitely on the fence. Can they honestly say that there is a serious prospect of change in Sri Lanka between now and the time of the CHOGM in the late autumn? Diversity and consensus are important, but they cover political and economic weaknesses.
On economics, there is no prospect of a free trade area, and hardly surprisingly countries take hard-nosed decisions on contracts: for example, India's recent decision to buy Mirages rather than Typhoons. CMAG is hardly effective. The Commonwealth Secretary-General is condemned, pace the Perth CHOGM, to be a secretary and not a general. Of the 58 countries in the world where capital punishment is legal, 36 are in the Commonwealth. In this week's Kenya election, the apparently leading candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta, is an indictee of the International Criminal Court. Our high commissioner and others would find it difficult to speak to him if elected.
I have been more critical than normal, but this needs to be an antidote to the rather blind and excessive claims for the Commonwealth. It is important for us, but is a second-tier organisation compared with NATO for defence and the EU for commerce and international political clout. Increasingly, member countries give more priority to their own region and to bilateral relations. Countries such as India give relatively low priority to the Commonwealth. Let us laud the diversity and ideals but not lapse into a starry-eyed overload of Commonwealth capabilities, as the Foreign Affairs Committee emphasised.
Contrary to the FCO response to the FAC report, there is a gap between words and deeds, between the Commonwealth of reality and the Commonwealth of illusion. Yes, let us seek to make the Commonwealth even better in its engagement in the world, but its values remain an important and relevant benchmark for perhaps an impossible ideal.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for securing this debate, and I apologise that I was not present for the first couple of minutes.
I would like to speak on Pakistan and its membership of the Commonwealth. Pakistan covers an area of 796,095 square kilometres, approximately equal to the combined land areas of France and the United Kingdom. It is the 36th largest nation by total area, with a population exceeding 180 million people, and is the sixth most populous country in the world. It is the second largest country by population in the Commonwealth, after India.
Pakistan is a federal parliamentary republic consisting of four provinces and four federal territories. It is an ethnically and linguistically diverse country, with a similar variation in its geography and wildlife. A regional and middle power, Pakistan has the seventh largest standing armed forces in the world and is also a nuclear power, being the only nation in the Muslim world, and the second in south Asia, to have that status. It has a semi-industrialised economy that is the 27th largest in the world in purchasing power and the 47th largest in nominal GDP.
Pakistan's post-independence history has been characterised by periods of military rule, political instability and conflicts with neighbouring India. The country has also suffered greatly and continues to do so in loss of human lives and in economic terms because of the instability and lack of peace in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Pakistan continues to face challenging problems, including terrorism, poverty, illiteracy and corruption. It is a founding member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and is a member of the United Nations, the Commonwealth of Nations, the Next Eleven economies, SAARC, ECO, D8 and the G20 developing nations.
"Pakistan holds a special place in the Commonwealth. It is one of the eight countries that came together in 1949 to lay the foundations of the modern Commonwealth. Since then, Pakistan has been on a national journey, and so too has the Commonwealth as it has grown in global size, relevance and impact. Today, the Commonwealth has 54 member countries in every continent, of every size and stage of development, accounting for one third of humanity. And Pakistan remains a highly valued member.
A visit to Pakistan for a Commonwealth Secretary-General is always an opportunity to take the pulse of the relationship - to seek direction from leaders in Pakistan on how it wants to see the Commonwealth continue to grow, and to see how the Commonwealth can continue to support and add value to Pakistan nationally. We always meet political leaders but also a wide range of others in society to discuss how the Commonwealth can offer partnership, to strengthen our global networks and collaborations, and to advance the fundamental values and principles which lie at the heart of our Commonwealth family".
Pakistan also highly values its membership of the Commonwealth. It plays an active role in the activities of the Commonwealth and endeavours to promote the Commonwealth charter. Pakistan looks towards the Commonwealth for mediation with India over Kashmir, and to guarantee the peace and prosperity of the 1.2 billion people on the Indian subcontinent.
My Lords, it is a particular privilege to stand as the appetiser to the speech of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, bringing, as he has already done to this Chamber in another capacity, a unique experience of global affairs through his visits to all parts of the Anglican communion. We on this Bench have so many reasons to be thankful for that and to appreciate at first hand the extremely high esteem in which he is held in so many of the countries of the Commonwealth.
There are three particular reasons why, as Bishop of Leicester, I felt it right to contribute to this debate. The first is because the history of my city in the past 40 years is quite inexplicable without reference to the Commonwealth. The Ugandan Asians, arriving 40 years ago after Idi Amin's expulsions, set in train a series of migrations from the subcontinent, Africa, and more recently from around the world, which have transformed the culture, economy and reputation of the city for the better. They have also embedded networks of family relationships, friendships and business connections with Commonwealth countries in south Asia and east and west Africa in particular. Further, they bring a familiarity with the concept of Commonwealth as a network of different religions, cultures and ethnicities under a common leadership for the common good.
Further, the three world-class universities of Leicester, Loughborough and De Montfort all educate large numbers of young people from Commonwealth countries, as any visit to a degree ceremony demonstrates, with the immense potential that that creates for inter- generational influence and partnership. Those universities share the concerns of many others expressed in the Home Affairs Committee's report about the serious effects of a restrictive student visa policy on the wider interests of the United Kingdom.
Secondly, I echo the concerns of others about the serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and the very questionable decision to hold the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo. Some 5,000 Tamils have found their way to Leicester in recent years. They have their own temple, the priest of which is a Tamil refugee whose family were killed in the civil war. Many of these families know at first hand the consequences of the human rights record in that country, in which 12,000 Sri Lankans have disappeared, of whom the Government have confirmed that 6,500 are dead.
Recently, in his pastoral letter to the Church of Ceylon, the Bishop of Colombo called on members of the church to fast, pray and lament over the state of the nation, after what he described as,
"the complete collapse of the rule of law there".
He went on to say:
"The breakdown of such accountability is a process that has been building up for the past several years.
It has now climaxed in the recent events that have seen both the Executive and the Legislature disregarding the provisions of the very Constitution which they swore to uphold and defend, giving the appearance of a country ruled on the principle that 'Might is Right'.
The numerous warnings that the Church, other religious organizations and civil society bodies repeatedly issued have been ignored. There is currently a climate of fear and helplessness, where people remain silent rather than speak out against rampant injustice, intimidation, violence and falsehoods".
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, will be able to give the House some further assurance as to Her Majesty's Government's engagement with this.
Thirdly, I draw attention to the capacity of the Anglican Communion's network of partnerships with dioceses in Commonwealth countries to plan and execute exchanges between individuals and communities for mutual learning and understanding. From Leicester two years ago, 24 junior clergy from towns and villages across the diocese visited Trichy Tanjore in Tamil Nadu in south India, establishing friendships and links that change outlooks and perceptions for a lifetime. They were followed by a group of young adults from sixth forms and colleges, experiencing at first hand a range of development programmes with tea planters, Dalits and fishing communities. Their experience "conscientatised" them to many of the issues around tax avoidance and the hiding of money from public scrutiny that so massively reduces revenues that could promote development.
At the same time, we are planning similar visits to our links in Tanzania. Schools from Leicester, Tanzania and south India are now in regular contact, and we are in the process of creating a triangular relationship between churches and communities in the United Kingdom, in Tanzania and in south India. These friendships and relationships are a vivid reminder that the Commonwealth is more than a political or economic entity and its significance extends beyond the political classes. I hope that that vision of the Commonwealth will be deepened and broadened by our debate today.
I echo the gratitude expressed by other noble Lords to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for securing this discussion on a profoundly significant and timely question. It is a particular privilege to begin my recycled life in your Lordships' House by speaking on this subject.
I note, as have other noble Lords, the wholly distinctive character of the Commonwealth as a family of independent nations allied, not primarily for military, or even economic, security, but by a shared history that has been translated into a shared vision of ethical politics. The proposed Commonwealth Charter, which has rightly been so warmly welcomed, sets out the main lines of this ethical vision with clarity and force and we must all hope that it will work as an unambiguous point of reference in dealing with crises and failures in the life of individual Commonwealth states, to which reference has already been made.
I draw special attention to the points made about the eradication of all kinds of discrimination-especially today mentioning discrimination against women-a properly pluralistic and transparent political culture, environmental priorities and the protection of more vulnerable states. In short, the charter defines an impressive project that deserves the strongest support from this country and its Government. For this project to be realised, a number of commitments on the part of the United Kingdom will need to be honoured and developed. The extensive support given to Commonwealth students, not least through DfID and the FCO, remains a key element in this. I was very much encouraged to hear the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, underlining this in his opening remarks.
We could enumerate the fruits of these exchanges at length, but perhaps the most important thing to note is the way in which Commonwealth students can be equipped to promote a transparent and accountable political culture in their own contexts, in large part by the experience that they gain here of active civil society networks. Even where it is a matter of students coming from so-called developed countries in the Commonwealth, there is still an agenda of building and cementing partnerships and learning to collaborate effectively in support of the more vulnerable members of the family. We should therefore applaud the support given as part of our development programme to such student opportunities and keep a sharp eye out for any suggestion that there are easy economies to be made by reducing these. That would be a very short-term view: if we indeed want a stable and just international environment, the Commonwealth will play its part by fostering cadres of young leaders with a strong commitment to civil society and human rights.
We need to keep under review those aspects of our Border Agency activities which may impinge negatively on the welcome offered to those who come from the Commonwealth to study, a point touched upon by the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Leicester. This does not apply only to students. Is it really appropriate, for example, that a respected academic from a developed Commonwealth country should be required to provide for the central administration an account of every trip that he or she makes away from their academic base? I refer to a case that has lately become somewhat notorious in Cambridge. Similarly, the immense complications that attend the visa system for many who plan short-stay study trips or attendance at conferences or training events in the UK have not done much to win hearts and minds. I think back to the hours spent by former colleagues at Lambeth Palace arguing about the bona fides of bishops and others from Commonwealth nations seeking to attend church gatherings here. I do not suggest that there is a quick fix to these concerns, only that the current situation maximises the possibilities of embarrassment and unfairness and needs constant monitoring and review.
I move briefly to a second point. The Commonwealth Charter's clarity about transparency and the vision of what a moment ago I called a stable and just international environment should combine to prompt some continuing questions about the effectiveness of tax governance in Commonwealth countries. Effective and fair taxation would be agreed by all of us to be a cornerstone of good political governance and social stability, and that point has been underlined very strongly in a recent Commonwealth Secretariat paper. Christian Aid, of which I have the honour to be chair-designate, has estimated that $160 billion are lost annually to developing economies worldwide, many of them Commonwealth states, because of the evasion of local tax by multinational interests. At the same time, ironically, a significant number of Commonwealth states and British Overseas Territories function as tax havens, and so compound those problems.
Her Majesty's Government have given welcome signs of concern about these matters and they will be on the agenda for the next G8 meeting. I trust that others will join me in hoping that the Government will bring some pressure to bear within the Commonwealth itself on these matters, looking to a commitment to better sharing of information on hidden assets and perhaps raising the matter at this year's Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council.
Those issues represent wide cross-party concern; but more importantly for today, they are entirely in line with the vision so eloquently set out in the Commonwealth Charter. The potential of our Commonwealth to be a beacon of equitable practice is very great, and the will is manifestly there. I trust that today's debate may assist us towards a future in which we may continue to be proud of our unique Commonwealth family as a model of both cultural diversity and moral convergence in our world.
My Lords, as a member of an Anglican church, it is a great privilege to respond to the maiden speech of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth as a life Peer. He was in my view an unsung modernising archbishop. Noble Lords can now find churches in skate board parks, care homes, and even new monastic orders due to the archbishop's innovation called Fresh Expressions. This also led to the creation of vicars called pioneers, who go to set up a church, not become the vicar of an existing church.
The role of the archbishop is also to speak truth to power, and the archbishop was known for his public opposition to the Iraq war and similar ruffling of the feathers of the political right, while increasing the sales of the New Statesman when he was guest editor. The noble and right reverend Lord has an unfailingly gracious way of causing "good trouble".
It is particularly apt that the former archbishop's maiden speech is in this debate, because in that role, I am informed by Lambeth Palace, he visited no less than 19 Commonwealth countries. For the linguists in your Lordships House, his continued presence is an utter delight. There is a choice of 11 languages in which to converse with or write to the former archbishop. No one can be in any doubt about the continued value of the contribution of the former archbishop to the work of your Lordships' House.
As I grew up, NATO, the EEC and the UN were the international organisations on the news. Yet the coverage of the Queen was often of her visits to the so-called Commonwealth countries, which seemed rather unfashionable. I am sure that your Lordships will agree how grateful we are now for Her Majesty's wisdom. A mere glance at the list of countries reveals those whose modern history is intricately linked to the United Kingdom. Nigeria, Jamaica, Ghana, India and Pakistan are all nations from which many British citizens have originated and with which they maintain active links. Just try booking a flight during a school half term to see what I mean.
However, it is also interesting to note that the Commonwealth includes Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist majority countries-Malaysia, India, Seychelles and Sri Lanka being respective examples. This could give the Commonwealth a unique role in promoting religious freedom, as outlined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The declaration states:
"This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance".
I declare my interest as chair of the All-Party Group on International Religious Freedom. The lack of understanding of religious freedom is one of the causes of internal unrest in some Commonwealth countries, such as Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Of course, there are also political causes but can one really understand events in northern Nigeria without understanding the context of the lack of understanding of true freedom of religion?
"We emphasise the need to promote tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom which are essential to the development of free and democratic societies".
I do not think that "moderation" has ever been used before in a human rights document and this paragraph seems, on one reading, to link it to religious freedom. Could the Minister please ensure that the Government's view is not that there will be an interpretation of "moderation", which could perhaps mean accepting only "acceptable" views.
Why is belief not also mentioned in Article IV, which is about freedom of religion and belief? As other noble Lords have mentioned, Article II outlines the grounds on which discrimination is prohibited, but the word used is "creed", not "religion" and "belief". I was encouraged by the Government's response to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report, when it stated:
"The UK should only accept the Charter's final wording if it reflects the fundamental principles of the Commonwealth. Before signing the Charter, the Government should assure itself that substantial progress is being made by the Commonwealth towards compliance with international human rights norms".
I would be grateful if the Minister could provide reassurance and clarification on the matters I have outlined. The security of minority religious communities flows from a proper understanding and enactment of freedom of religion, but it also goes further, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams, stated in your Lordships' House in his debate on Christians in the Middle East. He stated that the security of minority communities is,
"something of a litmus test in relation to these wider issues of the political health of the region".-[Hansard, 9/12/11; col. 927.]
The Commonwealth prides itself on valuing democracy, so it should take seriously ensuring true freedom of religion.
My Lords, the Commonwealth is a force for good in many ways and I welcome the charter. It gives the organisation, for the first time in its 64-year history, a single document setting out its core values. Yet the Declaration of Commonwealth Principles from 1971 includes this:
"We believe in the liberty of the individual, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief, and in their inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which they live. We therefore strive to promote in each of our countries those representative institutions and guarantees for personal freedom under the law that are our common heritage".
However, the Foreign Affairs Committee report, published last November, stated in paragraph 22:
"Several of those we met in Commonwealth countries called for Commonwealth institutions to set out a more vigorous human rights agenda, and to be effective and influential in pursuing it among its members".
It went on to say in paragraph 25:
"On certain human rights issues, the record of many Commonwealth countries is out of step with much of the developed world ... The FCO's 2011 report on human rights and other sources have recorded intolerance of homosexuality in a number of Commonwealth countries ... and the FCO reported that it had recently found it necessary to raise concerns about the possible criminalisation of same-sex marriage in Nigeria and the human rights of homosexual people in Cameroon".
The language used was guarded and the report gave no suggestion that the Committee had pursued this fundamental issue of human rights any further, but at least it mentioned homosexual repression, unlike the Government's response to the Foreign Affairs Committee's report, which did not mention it at all. That is a matter of great regret, because the attitudes and policies of many Commonwealth Governments are shocking. I argue they require urgently to be dragged into the 20th century, never mind the 21st. Article II of the newly signed charter states:
"We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds", as other noble Lords have already referred to. The "other grounds" are not specified but they clearly include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, even though consensus could not be achieved for spelling that out in the charter. Of course, that serves merely to highlight the bigotry and discrimination that is rampant among so many of the Commonwealth's member countries, a disgrace that should give every Member of this House pause for thought.
Indeed, the level of homophobic persecution in the Commonwealth beggars belief. More than 40 Commonwealth countries-80% of the total-currently criminalise homosexuality, mostly as a result of laws imposed by Britain during the colonial era that were not repealed when these nations won their independence. For example, penalties for homosexuality include 25 years in jail in Trinidad and Tobago, and 20 years plus flogging in Malaysia. Several Commonwealth countries stipulate life imprisonment for sex between men: Bangladesh, Guyana, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda. There are currently, or have been, severe homophobic witch-hunts in several other Commonwealth countries including Cameroon, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, the Gambia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
The Government have already expressed concern about the anti-gay Bill that is currently in front of the Nigerian Parliament. Nigeria already has extremely tough anti-gay legislation that designates up to 14 years in jail for men who have sex with men. In the north of the country, where Sharia law prevails, gay and bisexual men can face the death penalty.
Enough is enough: it is time the Commonwealth took a stand against such barbaric behaviour. There are four policies that I believe Her Majesty's Government should urge all Commonwealth member states to agree to enact: first, the immediate decriminalisation of homosexuality; secondly, the introduction of laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; thirdly, the introduction and/or enforcement of legislation against threats and violence, to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from hate crimes; and fourthly, the offer of consultation and dialogue with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organisations.
Until such steps are instigated, the reputation of the Commonwealth as a body that seeks to uphold and advance human rights throughout its membership will remain indelibly tarnished. Indeed, until such steps are instigated, I believe that the Commonwealth is not an organisation that deserves to be taken seriously in that area of its work, which is a statement that I make as much in sorrow as in anger.
My Lords, there may be some surprise when I commence by saying that this has been one of my interests for more than 75 years. I long cherished the card that was given to me through the Carmel Sunday school in Aberavon, which was issued by King George V on his Silver Jubilee. The card said:
"I ask you to remember that in days to come you will be citizens of a great Empire".
I am glad to welcome that proposition, although the conclusion may be rather different from that which the King was expecting at that time. The contents most compactly set out in the Charter of the Commonwealth, which have been explained and endorsed already by a number of colleagues, set out what should be the non-imperial conclusion.
I look back on the period when I was able to struggle to play some part in it. some 12 years after that Sunday school, I found myself on the equator in Kenya, as a lieutenant in the Royal Signals but attached to the East African Signals, themselves attached to the King's African Rifles. One of my tasks was to run the educational part that we were meant to play with our very effective, long-serving African soldiers. There were about 100 soldiers in that unit including about a dozen Britons, almost all of whom had been in the Burma campaign. Some of the African soldiers had been in London for the victory parade and had been able to establish partnerships with British citizens here at home. I was trying, when doing the non-military work that I had to do, to persuade them that Bwana "Kingy George" was rather better than Bwana Joe Stalin. I hope that I succeeded to some extent. It means having the direct experience of a reality that was less of an empire and more of a partnership, which is what many speakers today have already identified with.
The concept of empire implies authoritarianism. We can see some examples of imperial authoritarianism, which loom in my mind, which help to distort or reform our thinking. I remember, when I had come back from Kenya and arrived at Cambridge, that a gentleman called Patrick Gordon Walker was the Secretary of State for the Commonwealth. He provoked a tremendous student demonstration of horror when he sacked the head of Bechuanaland, Seretse Khama, for the incredible reason that Seretse Khama had married a former London typist. That was struck as something contrary to all his other aspects. Many of us reacted with great hostility to that. It led, among other things, to the emergence and the creation by Conservative young colleagues like myself of the Bow Group, when we saw other features taking place. Between 1950 and 1960 there had been an inflow of some 750,000 people from this empire, and it very much strengthened our feeling that we had to make sure that discrimination did not become part of our territory.
Since then, I have been able to see the way in which the Commonwealth worked during my time in office, in a very pragmatic and positive way. For example, the Commonwealth Finance Ministers meeting, of which I was chairman during my time as Chancellor, was in itself all the more important than the IMF in that way. Tension, of course, was not unknown because of the difference in our attitudes between different members of the Commonwealth towards the persistence of apartheid in South Africa. Our Commonwealth conference meetings were dominated by the extent to which we could and should do more to challenge that. We had one CHOGM meeting establishing an Eminent Persons Group led by Malcolm Frazer, the Australian Prime Minister. He led a mission on behalf of the Commonwealth to South Africa to challenge apartheid as it then was. They were able to secure Nelson Mandela's release from Robin Island. When Malcolm Frazer went to see him in his cell, Nelson Mandela rather startled him by asking the question, "Do tell me, is Donald Bradman still alive?". That seems to underline the unity of the Commonwealth, binding many of us together. It is in that sense that Britain, as one of the Commonwealth countries, was able thereafter to bring pressure to bear against apartheid. We were able to propaganda like that in South Africa, and were able to see substantial success there in the end.
That background, with the Commonwealth as a collective organisation, supporting, encouraging, offering up advocacy of the right course of events, underlines to me the extent of the value of the Commonwealth declaration today. It underlines the positive value of the most practically effective UK/multinational organisation in this context, whether that is alongside the UK/People's Republic of China relationship, the EU, NATO, the UK/US or the United Nations. In the context that we are talking about, the Commonwealth has a collective wisdom that can help to advance matters in the right way.
I think that that is all I need to say. I have spoken not about contemporary events but about the history and background that have brought us to the present position. It is that background against which the United Kingdom should approach and influence Commonwealth members and benefit from the collective relationship, one that has come into existence and deserves to be enhanced and amplified.
My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, under whom I served on numerous occasions, one of which of course was in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The noble and learned Lord has inspired the commitment of the coalition Government to policies on the Commonwealth. I am glad that he is keeping his hand in on the Commonwealth by, for example, leading the Commonwealth Day ceremonies next Monday in Westminster Abbey.
When I look back to the debates in this House on the Commonwealth over the past six or seven years, I think that on some occasions they have been somewhat frustrating and certainly repetitive about the strengths and the assets that the Commonwealth offers. There was always a feeling that no one was listening very much, either in the Government or outside. However, I think that there is now a greater realisation of the importance of soft power and diplomacy. I should perhaps remind the House that the Commonwealth is not a substitute for membership of NATO, the European Union or the United Nations; that vast network of 2 billion people is something quite different that complements it. What seems to have happened over the past year or two is that various strands have come together: the Eminent Persons Group reporting to the Perth summit meeting in October 2011 with some of the recommendations being accepted, followed by the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, a strong report from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons and on to Commonwealth Week next week.
I sense that, as a result of the Perth meeting, for the first time we have a kind of framework for action within the Commonwealth. We have a chance to monitor progress in the Commonwealth and for Commonwealth parliaments to take reports from Governments about progress on the Perth recommendations, over 100 of which were made. As the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said, it was disappointing that a number of the proposals were not accepted at Perth, such as for a commissioner for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, but enough were accepted to demonstrate that, if they are implemented, we can build more confidence in the Commonwealth and perhaps tackle some of the more difficult issues at a later stage.
On the inter-governmental side, like others I welcome the importance of the Commonwealth charter, which consolidates the values expressed in the Commonwealth, but it is important to put flesh on to them. For example, it is good to see that there are going to be stronger measures to deal with good governance in supervising elections. Goodness knows that is needed, for example, this week in Kenya. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, which deals with conflict resolution, will be given stronger powers, and the Secretary-General will be asked to use his good offices more forcefully in that direction. All this helps towards the creation of a more stable climate to deal with conflict resolution, which is extremely important for trade. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, said, that is extremely important and sits at the heart of the Commonwealth.
A number of noble Lords have said that CHOGM next time round is important. To my mind, it is a litmus test of the Commonwealth because it is essential that it shows evidence of progress on human rights issues. I refer to the treatment of the Tamils and the fact that, contrary to the advice of the Supreme Court, the chief justice has been dismissed. Canada has taken a lead on this and it is important that the British Government should express a firm view about it, otherwise there will be a great deal of disillusionment with the Commonwealth.
On the people-to-people side-the non-government side-I will just highlight two areas that the charter stresses. First, in respect of young people, with over 50% of the Commonwealth being under 25, there is the proposal for a youth corps. I myself have been privileged to have been the first president of the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra and am delighted that my noble friend Lady Prashar will succeed me. These kinds of areas are an expression of the importance of the Commonwealth. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester and my noble and right reverend friend Lord Williams mentioned education, which is absolutely vital to the development of the Commonwealth. For example, there is the Commonwealth scholarship scheme, from which 27,000 people within the Commonwealth have benefited. There are numerous proposals, for example from Professor Dilks, for more exchanges in the medical world, as well as in the teachers' and the youth world. All these areas strengthen the network of the Commonwealth.
The second aspect is civil society, which the charter stresses is also very important. Here, as a former chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation, I ask the Minister what is being done to strengthen the Commonwealth Foundation to act as a catalyst in the non-governmental area and civil society and for the promotion of youth in the Commonwealth. I feel, rather contrary to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, that we now have a chance to give the Commonwealth a new lease of life. The secretariat and the Secretary-General have a vital role. The regions may even have a chance in the Commonwealth to give new momentum. This is an opportunity that we must take, and it is in Britain's interests that we do so.
My Lords, I want to address the issue of freedom of expression within the Commonwealth, so I declare an interest as the chairman of the Commonwealth Press Union Trust and draw attention to my other media interests in the register.
Along with many other noble Lords who have spoken, I strongly believe that in order to ensure its future the Commonwealth must be seen to be relevant. The greatest danger to its long-term survival is inertia, as a prelude to irrelevance. The Commonwealth charter is a sound attempt to avoid that fate. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, put it, the charter is of no use unless words are backed by actions. I draw particular attention to Article V of the charter, on freedom of expression. It states:
"We are committed to peaceful, open dialogue and the free flow of information, including through a free and responsible media, and to enhancing democratic traditions and strengthening democratic processes".
That is absolutely right. However, my worry is that this declaration is simply the latest in a long line of similar oratorical flourishes which will prove meaningless unless backed by firm action.
Back in 2002, the Coolum declaration for the first time listed freedom of expression as one of the principles on which the Commonwealth was founded. Since then there have been many other similar declarations. Just last year, for instance, the Commonwealth Secretariat published a message for World Press Freedom Day which said:
"Commonwealth leaders have consistently re-affirmed their commitment to ... freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The challenge is to translate these commitments into action-moving beyond declarations to walking the talk".
That is absolutely right, yet is precisely what has not happened, and the situation with regard to freedom of expression within far too many Commonwealth countries is desperate. Countries such as Nigeria, Rwanda, Pakistan, Cameroon and Bangladesh languish near the bottom of world press freedom league tables.
For example, in the Gambia, President Jammeh has explicitly said that he will not,
"sacrifice the interests, the peace and stability ... of the Gambian people at the altar of freedom of expression".
Perhaps he need not worry too much as there seems little chance of that given that, under the Newspaper Amendment Act, it costs around $17,000 to obtain a licence to produce a newspaper, making it impossible for virtually the entire population to exercise its fundamental rights. In Malaysia, the constitution specifically gives the Government the power to impose restrictions on press freedom where it is deemed "necessary" and the repressive Printing Presses and Publications Act, alongside the Sedition Act of 1948, is frequently used to suppress debate. In Uganda, journalists are licensed by the Government, and the state media council, operating under the Press and Journalist Act 1995-which the Government of Uganda now wish to tighten further-has wide-ranging powers to discipline journalists.
This state of affairs, in so many Commonwealth countries, is shocking and shows that good words over many years have not been matched by good deeds. It is surely time to put that right with a firm plan of action across the Commonwealth, demanding an end to draconian and anachronistic laws such as criminal defamation, an end to state licensing of journalists, the introduction of freedom of information and the promotion of effective self-regulation in place of repressive state press councils.
At the time of the introduction of the Commonwealth charter, the Foreign Secretary William Hague rightly said:
"The commitments in the charter should be upheld, adhered to and kept under review by member Governments, Parliaments and civil society organisations".-[Hansard, Commons, 4/3/13; col. WS56.]
I back that sentiment wholeheartedly, but it means in practice that we must begin now to tackle these fundamental human rights abuses. I associate myself completely with the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, about the state of affairs which sees so many Commonwealth countries still criminalising homosexuality, a stain on the reputation of the Commonwealth which is going to be a subject of a debate in this House next Wednesday.
Will my noble friend restate the Government's commitment, as part of their very welcome plans to reinvigorate the Commonwealth, to promoting freedom of expression throughout the Commonwealth? Does he also agree that one way to ensure that deeds match words is for the Commonwealth Secretariat, in advance of CHOGM, to undertake a freedom of expression audit of all member states to act as a baseline for improvement, an audit against which we can check whether the noble words of the charter are being met with action on the ground? That could be a hugely important first step in ensuring not just that the Commonwealth itself remains relevant and effective but that it is an organisation in which all of us who believe in human rights can be proud to take part.
My Lords, I wanted to address a couple of issues this afternoon, the first being the economic dimension to the Commonwealth. As we have heard from many speeches, approximately one-third of humanity is engaged in the Commonwealth and it very largely shares with people and businesses in this country a common language and very similar approaches to law. Among these diverse countries are those that are extremely rich in natural resources, such as Australia, Canada and many parts of Africa, and many that are growing fast, particularly in Asia and Africa. It seems reasonable that if this country has a connection with many of those countries, while in no way is it a substitute for our membership of the European Union, surely it should be another string to our bow.
At the beginning of our membership of the European Union we turned our back on many of our former trading partners in the Commonwealth. Some felt great resentment and at that stage it was not necessarily in our economic interests. It most certainly is not in our economic interests today. We should pursue, as hard as we can, the economic development of the Commonwealth, because just as the founders of the European Union had it in their minds that strengthening economic co-operation would also go a long way to preventing conflict, similarly economic development in the Commonwealth can also help to eliminate conflict. As we heard from the noble Lords, Lord Black and Lord Anderson, there are things that are far from perfect, and I welcome the charter. It is a very fine foundation upon which to build.
The second issue, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, is the possible membership of the Commonwealth by the Irish Republic. This is something I would strongly welcome and I ask the Minister if this issue has been raised by Her Majesty's Government with the Irish Government. If we go back some 30 years to 1982, there was considerable conflict at that time with the Falklands war and others. It was Sir Shridath Ramphal, then the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, who implored Ireland, as he put it, to "come home" to the Commonwealth of nations.
The Commonwealth consists of 54 nations, more than 60% of which are republics. It is no longer, as the Minister said, the British Commonwealth; it is the Commonwealth. Given the diversity of countries, given the new charter, given the fact that the majority of members are republics and given the commonality of history and all that goes with it, it seems to me that it could go a long way towards putting on an even stronger foundation the relationship between this country and the Republic of Ireland, taking its place in the Commonwealth of nations, which will, I believe, be a very strong trading bloc as well as a strong soft-power bloc diplomatically throughout the world. It would strengthen relationships within these islands.
While some would see the Republic joining the Commonwealth as some way of assuaging the views of unionists who might then feel less likely to object to being part of a united Ireland, I can assure your Lordships as a unionist that that is not the case. But that does not mean that we should not do anything and everything in our power to strengthen our relationships and help to build what has the potential to be one of the biggest and most successful trading and economic blocs in the world.
The charter would offend nobody in the Irish Republic; it would be entirely consistent with its long-held views and expressions; and there is no military involvement whatever. Given the progress that has been made in the past 15 years-we are coming up to the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast agreement next month-this could be a further step that we could take together. I hope that people in the Republic will give significant consideration to taking this step.
My Lords, I am pleased to speak in this timely and most worthy debate. I thank my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire for introducing it.
I have been clear in this House previously about my admiration for the Commonwealth. For me, it is a network of countries that strikes the right balance between sharing a commitment to democracy and the rule of law and celebrating the diversity that exists within it.
It proudly knows no geographical, cultural or economic bounds; it is a club of equals. Its modern-day relevance is clear, serving as home to a third of the world's population. Still, there are countries showing an interest in joining, with Rwanda becoming the newest member in 2009.
The Commonwealth is often described as a link between the first world and the third world. The importance of this cannot be exaggerated. It has the potential to play key roles in conflict resolution and the development of democracy in unstable nations through the use of soft power. Perhaps most notable was the group's substantial contribution to the end of apartheid in South Africa. However, it should now become more involved in conflict resolution. It is also encouraging to see that the Commonwealth has pledged to give extra assistance to the poorest and most vulnerable members who are affected by climate change.
Your Lordships may be aware that the first ever multinational anti-corruption centre was launched in Botswana last month to tackle corruption right across the continent. The Commonwealth is providing £1 million to help fund this over the next few years, which visibly demonstrates the commitment of Commonwealth countries to helping each other.
As a businessman, it is highly encouraging for me to note that that this year's Commonwealth theme is opportunity through enterprise. The talent and innovation of our young people must be unlocked and harnessed to ensure that Commonwealth countries remain at the forefront of technological and economic development.
I have also spoken in your Lordships' House many times on the need to increase overseas trade from and between Commonwealth countries. The Commonwealth itself must be more strongly appreciated as a potential trading network, with more emphasis placed on trade-which at the moment stands at about £1.7 trillion. It has £62 billion of foreign direct investment flowing out of it, constituting more than 20% of all international trade and investment. In fact, most member countries conduct between a third and half of their trade with other member countries. We should look very closely at the economic potential of using such an obvious grouping of countries to build business and trade relationships that could be mutually beneficial to all involved. Quite simply, it provides us with a ready-made relationship with some of the most promising emerging markets in India, Africa and Malaysia. I have visited a number of countries in these areas.
Business and trade aside, what makes the Commonwealth so unique is that its citizens have an exceptional sense of pride from being part of the club. Unlike other regional blocs or trading territories, the Commonwealth gains much of its strength from the sense of affinity that binds its countries together. This year is of course particularly special because we are establishing the Commonwealth charter: a set of core values that the nations of the Commonwealth believe in and are expected to uphold and protect on behalf of their people.
We currently face a multitude of global challenges that threaten the long-term health and stability of our planet, so we can again use the Commonwealth as a force for good by mapping out a consensus on major international issues such as terrorism, poverty and climate change. Although the charter does not set contractual obligations, it encourages a sense of shared responsibility and is set within the moral and ethical context from which the Commonwealth has always drawn its strength. National Governments are often more receptive and a lot less hostile to this type of approach, which frees them from the restraints of bureaucracy or quotas but holds them accountable for their principles by their allies.
Far from being an outdated institution, the Commonwealth is perhaps the greatest of all international associations. It has a unique reach across countries, continents and oceans that both celebrates our unity on liberty and democracy, and encourages national sovereignty and diversity. It is the ultimate network fit for the continued challenges of the 21st century. My noble friend Lord Howell deserves praise for greatly raising the profile of the Commonwealth on the world stage. It is vital that the Government continue upon the course he started in adopting a clearer strategy for their relations with the Commonwealth.
My Lords, in recent years we have seen a number of developments in the Commonwealth: the Eminent Persons Group report triggered some changes to increase the effectiveness of the Commonwealth; the adoption of the new Commonwealth charter; and a renewed focus on the Commonwealth by this Government, thanks to the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford. All these changes are very significant and welcome. They provide a real opportunity to keep up the momentum for change and revitalise both the Commonwealth and its institutions.
The potential of the Commonwealth at all levels is enormous, as we have heard from other contributions this afternoon. The aspirations and expectations of the Commonwealth are high, and those of this Government are very ambitious indeed. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, identified three main areas where he would like to see the role of the Commonwealth strengthened: human rights and democracy; engagement on global issues, working to liberalise trade and break down barriers to international trade; and an even greater role in development and conflict prevention. To meet these enormous challenges we need effective Commonwealth institutions, ones which are nimble, agile and able to develop mature and constructive partnerships with other regional, international and civil society organisations.
In response to the Eminent Persons Group report the Commonwealth Secretariat is developing a new strategic plan, as we heard earlier, and efforts are being made to reform the institution. While these are welcome developments we need further radical thinking and reform. This is not a criticism of what has been achieved but we need to recognise the current realities. We must be sensitive to the diversity of needs in the Commonwealth and its competing priorities. Different members of the Commonwealth have different priorities. Some want to concentrate on development issues, others on democracy, rule of law and human rights, and others on business. These are interrelated but the starting point for different Commonwealth countries may be different. I am not sure that the Commonwealth Secretariat based in London can deliver the ambitious agenda expected of it.
Now that we have a charter that provides a strong framework of core values, should we not be thinking of creating regional Commonwealth hubs, or at least offices, in three regions-for example, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia-with a slimmed-down secretariat in London? This may seem a bold suggestion but it would enable the secretariat to respond to the relevant needs and priorities of countries in those regions, within the framework of the charter, develop purposeful links with civil society and other regional organisations there, and have a greater impact.
In the time allocated it is not possible to spell out the notion of regional hubs and offices in detail. In response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the Government said that they would continue to seek to be a positive influence on the Commonwealth Secretariat, working with and through it to make it more efficient, focused and relevant in today's world. It would be helpful if they could now urge the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to set up a group, similar to the Eminent Persons Group, to explore options for further reform of the secretariat and the feasibility of regional offices and hubs.
This group could also look at what implications this would have for the future appointment of the Secretary-General and his or her senior staff. In a modern world and Commonwealth, appointments should be made through open competition, backed by a clear idea of skills, experience and qualities required for the job. I am not the first person to suggest this; it has been recommended before.
The same can apply to organisations like the CPA and the Commonwealth Foundation. They, too, could look to be part of regional hubs. Similarly, Commonwealth civil society organisations could work and collaborate with devolved regional hubs and be more effective on the ground. As former chairman and president of the Royal Commonwealth Society, I know that there is appetite within civil society organisations to help and support the secretariat. Good practice already exists. For example, the advocacy campaign on ending child marriage in the Commonwealth, led by the Royal Commonwealth Society and Plan International, an organisation with offices across the world, has made and continues to make a real impact.
The time is ripe for radical thinking and reform of Commonwealth institutions if we want the Commonwealth to realise its potential and remain the platform for the future. I very much hope that the Government will take up this initiative and urge consideration of further radical reform.
My Lords, I should declare that I suppose I am, by accident, what might be defined as a child of the Commonwealth. When I first came back with my sister from Canada, where we were left during the war, we were introduced to our family, my mother in particular. Most of her family were called Williams, a lovely patronymic surname that I have always admired. More than that, for family bonding we went on holiday for the first time, which was quite difficult when there was no petrol around, to Mumbles. I therefore have a great affection for the current position of-I must get this right, because my noble friend Lord Howell, got it wrong-the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams. That was my most difficult research before speaking today. I am most grateful to him for a debate that he introduced some time ago on the importance and effect of religion in the Middle East, which touched me deeply.
As a child of the Commonwealth, and knowing that there is so little time left, one must always have a theme. I will take the theme of a minute. A minute is, as noble Lords know, one nautical mile upon the surface of the earth. Therefore, when I look down from heaven or up from wherever it might be, what do I see? Seventy per cent of the earth is ocean or sea. The land is only a very small percentage. It is spread far and wide, and you either look down on it from above the Antarctic, the Arctic or the equator, but, in general, when you look down upon it, the map that you see has Greenwich, which is in the United Kingdom, in the centre, as it should be, due to the technology of the Harrison chronometer. It matters not, but technology was what enabled us to go out into the world.
This degree and this 70% water become important to me because, by some strange calculation, it seems that the United Kingdom, its British territories and the other main Commonwealth countries are the most dominant with their economic exclusion zones of 200 nautical miles controlling the oceans of the world, where there are 22,000 shipping vessels and others. In comparison, the United States has 6.2 million square kilometres against our 27 million square kilometres. The rest of NATO has 4.5 million square kilometres, but the French territories become quite important with 7.7 million square kilometres. Does this mean anything? Possibly it does not, but it can do strategically, and if we look at such issues as global warming or trade. If we say that 90% of all trade goes by sea, of the 100,000 vessels upon the face of the earth, 20% are Commonwealth and 20% are fishing vessels. This may be utterly irrelevant to this debate, but to me it is relevant because I want to move on to look at climate change.
I had the privilege to go to a presentation the other day about the Arctic, and I got something of a shock because with global warming before very long the north-west passage will be open, which means that the great ships of the world will be moving there in five days rather than eight, with enormous fuel savings. It means that the whole structure of Europe and the United Kingdom may change, and perhaps even Scapa Flow will come back into being.
On the impact of that change and the changes that are taking place in the southern hemisphere, we can talk about Antarctica, which, as a result of the Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Montgomery, is well protected and does not belong to anyone, although the greatest claimants are, as your Lordships know, always those who play rugby-I do not know about Papua New Guinea. I do not know what that link is, but it is there. Suppose global warning continues. At the presentation I went to, some eminent government scientists pointed out that flooding as a result of climate change could have a major impact on India and many other Commonwealth countries, and that we should be aware that it is not that far away. This is all way beyond my pay grade, but as secretary and treasurer of the House of Lords Yacht Club, it gives me great pleasure to know that floating upon the face of the earth are more British vessels than vessels of any other country, and they are Commonwealth-flagged. We must therefore ask: what is the Commonwealth flag and what does it stand for? Even in today's debate, we have different opinions. I believe that trade is the bearer of all wealth, knowledge and understanding.
My Lords, I asked a relation of mine what she thought of the Commonwealth, and she said, "Well, it's a sentimental thing, isn't it?". She made it sound like a keepsake or a woolly rabbit, but then she said, "If the members like it, then it must have value". Judging from its latest report, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee would not be satisfied with that.
The Commonwealth obviously does a lot of good, but is it trying hard enough and can it do better? Having spent most of my working life in voluntary organisations, I see it as a rather cumbersome NGO gently nudging member states around the world towards better modes of governance, democracy, education, human rights and economic development. Some countries move forward, and some, as the noble Lords, Lord Anderson and Lord Watson, have pointed out, slip backwards.
NGOs, including church agencies, can have a potent effect, especially at a local level. I have seen the best ones working around officialdom and engaging directly with the community, and often representing them where elected politicians fail them. Some are bureaucratic, but most give value for money. Some are dominated by strong personalities with political motives, but there is no harm in that. My own interest in politics stems from working with Christian Aid. I firmly believe in the potential of civil society to influence events, and for similar reasons I see the Commonwealth as a force for good in the world.
However, as the FAC says, the Commonwealth needs to tighten up its act. As we have heard, the new charter adopted at the Perth CHOGM last year brings together the key values uniting the Commonwealth: democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The charter emphasises the role of civil society, albeit in its final paragraph 16. I welcome that because it is not only a hallmark of such a diverse organisation but a means of extending important principles that might otherwise remain mere aspirations. For example, I can think of a number of countries where there is little progress towards those values but where civil society nevertheless has a strong tradition of resistance.
Parliamentary strengthening is of course a key activity, and I have seen this through CPA visits. However, in this we must move further away from a Westminster-centred approach towards a more respectful recognition of local traditions. Here I concur with what the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, said. This may be why the Commonwealth has recently focused on human rights. The Secretary-General intends to deepen the secretariat's strategic partnership with the High Commissioner for Human Rights. I wonder if the Minister can explain what that means, remembering that the next CHOGM will be in Colombo. When the FAC complained about this, Her Majesty's Government's reply was rather lame. They said:
"We look to Sri Lanka ... to demonstrate its commitment to upholding Commonwealth values".
The Minister repeated something similar just now. It is undoubtedly an embarrassment for everyone except the Sri Lankan Government that CHOGM is taking place in Colombo.
I would like to see South Sudan become the latest member of the Commonwealth. It applied informally after independence in 2011 and its application was universally welcomed in Perth. However, it seems that the Commonwealth may be suffering from enlargement fatigue, a condition normally associated with the European Union. Is there any reason why a post-conflict and least developed country, having survived 30 years of war, desperately in need of international assistance and near the top of every development agency's priorities, should be made to wait for formalities?
I telephoned and emailed the secretariat last week and it told me that essentially the process has no timeframes. It depends on how quickly the aspiring member state follows the requirements, which include a resolution by the country's parliament. It said that the secretariat does not push the process. Well, who does? Suspecting that South Sudan had been left to its own devices, I rang the South Sudanese Ambassador, Mr Sebit Aley, and he told me that that was indeed the position. His Minister had discussed the application with his Australian counterpart. The FCO was present, and he had received an assurance that South Sudan would be assisted in its application. However, he said that he had heard nothing since then and was still waiting for the list of requirements. I have mentioned all this to our new ambassador to South Sudan. Capacity-building is a familiar concept, and I hope that the Minister will now be able to move things further forward.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. As always, however much one thinks that they know about a subject, there is more that one can learn. It has also been a most appropriate occasion for us to hear from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, in his new capacity in your Lordships' House.
Last year I was not able to participate in the Commonwealth Day debate here, as I was celebrating it in Brunei. The date coincided with Brunei's annual session of the legislative assembly, a rare and privileged occasion for one of the smaller members of the Commonwealth. I welcome the fact that this Commonwealth Day debate is becoming a fixture in our agenda, albeit that it is not taking place precisely on the day itself. The idea that all Commonwealth countries should endeavour to hold such a debate on or close to
It is important that parliaments should be involved in the development of the role of the Commonwealth, and that such matters are not just left to heads of government and the Commonwealth institutions themselves. Today's debate and the suggestions that have come out of it, as well as the debate that is due to be held in the other place next week, prove the point. In this, the United Kingdom branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association plays a leading role, and I declare an interest as a member of the executive council. The programme of meetings, seminars and conferences, which the secretariat organises both for parliamentarians from other countries and for parliamentary officials from other Commonwealth countries, have been hugely successful and popular and are well received.
The theme of last year's 58th CPA conference, which took place in Sri Lanka, was, "Ensuring a relevant Commonwealth for the future". I agree that this means not only looking at the trade and networking opportunities that membership of the Commonwealth can offer but at what still needs to be done-for example, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, mentioned earlier, the fact that some 36 countries still have the death penalty. Other references have been made to human rights and issues that still remain to be worked on.
Since today is International Women's Day, it is worth mentioning that at the Sri Lankan conference last year the Commonwealth women parliamentarian's steering committee committed itself afresh to strategies to increase women's representation in parliaments, especially in small states where adequate numbers and candidates might not always receive sufficient encouragement.
Following the centenary of the CPA the year before, last year saw the celebration of the Queen's 60 years as head of the Commonwealth. There is an All-Party Group for the Commonwealth in Parliament, and yesterday we heard from the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, which was set up to commemorate the Queen's jubilee with special reference to the Commonwealth. Its current programme is aimed at accelerating the work towards ending avoidable blindness across the Commonwealth, in part through partnerships and by supporting the existing initiatives in this field. It also intends to provide support for young people by bringing them together and providing mentoring for young leaders, and its work needs some acknowledgment.
I underline what has been said about the importance of education and educational links, and wish that the Commonwealth of Learning, which is based in Canada, had more recognition and encouragement in this country. I was delighted to hear from my noble friend the Minister at the outset about the increase in Commonwealth and Chevening scholarships. I welcome the fact that the Commonwealth Youth Parliament is now in its fifth year and that its meetings, which have taken place in your Lordships' House and the House of Commons, are now to be a fixture in the CPA calendar and are due to take place in other Commonwealth countries. The enthusiasm of these young people must make us optimistic about the future. I also welcome the initiative of the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra, to which the noble Lord, Lord Luce, referred.
I do not want to finish without a brief mention of the Overseas Territories. I was pleased to hear the Minister's reassurance that these tiny territories are not forgotten. Their role within the Commonwealth has been somewhat anomalous in the past, so it is important that a special recognition of their existence should be maintained as well as mentioned in the charter.
As has been emphasised throughout this debate, we share so much within the Commonwealth: values, institutions, language and a common history. We can now look forward to a common future, and the adoption of the Commonwealth charter will, I hope, help to bring this about.
My Lords, I warmly welcome this debate, and I have greatly enjoyed the many and varied contributions this afternoon, especially the sort of maiden speech by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, in his recycled life. I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, especially for the work he has done for the Commonwealth.
I have always been a firm supporter of the Commonwealth; likewise, I have always been a firm supporter of the European Union. I therefore strongly disagree with those-not in this Chamber this afternoon-who yearn for isolation from the European Union, believing that enhanced links within the Commonwealth would strengthen our position in the world. That is both wrong-headed and romantic. Our membership of a single market of almost 500 million citizens, a powerful global trading block, must never be undervalued. Both organisations fulfil different and distinct roles, but they share common values, which include democracy, human rights, good governance and the rule of law. At a time when there has been an ever-accelerating movement of wealth and power from north to south, from west to east, and geopolitics is in a constant swirl, it is our key relationships with both that help to define our place in the world.
A couple of weeks ago, when the Prime Minister visited Amritsar, he rightly described the massacre, the atrocity of 1919, as,
"a deeply shameful event in British history".
Churchill described it at the time as "monstrous", as indeed it was. It brought home the injustices of imperialism, episodes in our history of which we should be deeply ashamed-although clearly we did many good things. For me, it also encapsulated the complexities of the Commonwealth and our shared history.
I was attracted by the suggestions made by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, about further radical reform of the Commonwealth, for example by the introduction of regional hubs. I also welcome the Commonwealth Charter, which defines an impressive project, and agree that it is an important statement of what the Commonwealth stands for. It will ensure that the organisation renews itself and remains relevant in the 21st century, while retaining its values-that is, as long as its declarations are translated into actions, as the noble Lord, Lord Black, said.
There are many who question that relevance. I recall difficult discussions with Indian parliamentarians last year during an excellent visit organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Some of our interlocutors saw the Commonwealth only as an organisation born out of Empire, and believed that our position within the European Union was of much more interest to them. I have no doubt that there will be many successful outcomes following the recent trade mission to India led by the Prime Minister. Although the business potential is enormous, it is clear that we cannot rely on our historic ties and our powerful diaspora for business preferment. I should add that mixed messages about visas do not help. I endorse the comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, about the damage being done by our restrictive visa policy to intergenerational relationships and to our soft power, which is rightly celebrated by the Government.
The charter provides an opportunity for the Commonwealth to restate its role in a fast-changing world, but for that opportunity to be truly grasped, the core values and principles have to be adhered to. It is a voluntary association of independent, sovereign states which celebrate diversity while sharing history and traditions; we share a culture but have many cultural differences. However, those differences must not be allowed to override our shared respect for human rights, as clearly stated in the charter in a gloriously robust paragraph that ends:
"We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds".
Like my noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie, I therefore have to wonder why, in the 21st century, the Commonwealth still tolerates not only the criminalisation of homosexuality in many Commonwealth countries, but the fact that in northern Nigeria the maximum punishment for same-sex sexual activity is death by stoning, and in Uganda, legislators are considering an anti-gay Bill that includes a death penalty provision.
I would be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that in all Commonwealth gatherings, we will raise these issues, which are an affront to our declared commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That is, or at least should be, one of the great strengths of the Commonwealth. It brings together countries from North and South, developed and developing, and should enable us to discuss the most difficult issues and to find solutions to problems such as tax transparency. In too many of our discussions in the past on development and migration, we have looked for North-South solutions. However, within the Commonwealth, matters can be resolved though South-South dialogues, and the Commonwealth.
On the issue of human rights, like other noble Lords, I look forward to hearing from the Minister a proper update on the Government's support for the holding of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka later this year-a country where there are still horrific abuses of human rights. In my view it is clear that the host of CHOGM must uphold the Commonwealth values of good governance and respect for human rights; this is, indeed, a litmus test. Like my noble friend Lord Anderson, I regret that the CHOGM held in Perth last year did not adopt the proposal from the Eminent Persons Group to create a commissioner for democracy, the rule of law and human rights. I know that the arguments against it were that it would duplicate the roles of the secretary-general and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, but I take a very different position. In my view, it would have strengthened the Commonwealth's institutions and the democratic institutions and the rule of law in all the member states. Democracy is fragile; it needs constant nurturing and vigilance; and the appointment of a commissioner would have helped.
I am sure that we all look forward to free, fair and transparent elections in Pakistan in a few months' time. This will be the first transition from one democratically elected Government to another in the country's history. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House what arrangements are being made to monitor the elections. While welcoming the elections, I have deep concerns about the fact that more that 12 million women will not be able to participate in them because they do not have an identity card and therefore cannot register to vote. That says much about the status of women in our Commonwealth, although some wonderful advances are being made by women in Pakistan, which I will briefly mention in due course if time permits.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the work that it does in bringing together parliamentarians and facilitating discussions and exchanges of best practice. Sometimes the deeper understanding and new relationships have very practical outcomes: for example, in developing partnerships between organisations and institutions in the UK and other Commonwealth countries. There are also many examples of links that have been forged between small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK and other countries, providing trading and employment opportunities. Again, this is very much a two-way process, with benefits to developing and developed countries.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of participating in a CPA visit to Pakistan to continue a dialogue that we had begun with women parliamentarians from Pakistan and Afghanistan. During our visit, we met inspirational women who are working in Parliament, NGOs, communities and the home to lift people out of poverty and to ensure a more equal society. As we heard in our earlier debate, thanks to the Women's Parliamentary Caucus, there have been stunning successes in getting rid of deeply discriminatory laws. It has also produced laws against, for example, acid throwing and has many more in the pipeline on domestic violence and many other issues of critical importance to women. The greatest challenge now is changing mindsets and culture to ensure the application of those laws. Our discussions focused on women's economic empowerment, and many of the issues raised were exactly the same as those which I discussed with the Forest of Dean Businesswomen's Network last Friday. The potential for women's economic and social empowerment throughout the Commonwealth is mighty and it is right that we recognise that on International Women's Day.
The CPA and all other organisations and networks that bind the Commonwealth together must never become a mere talking shop, a travelling merry-go-round. They must be effective partners, working together in friendship to protect and support human rights, build the capacity of democratic institutions, respect the rule of law, work for peace and reconciliation and contribute to the millennium development goals. In undertaking these tasks, there are vast opportunities to enhance our relationships in education, business, industry, healthcare and so much more. In our fast-moving, ever-changing, world, in which the sustainability of our natural resources grows in importance by the day, it is to our mutual benefit to grasp those opportunities in what should and must be a vibrant global network.
My Lords, this has been a very valuable debate. We covered only a little bit of the Commonwealth, which is a highly diverse, very complicated network. In reading up for this, I become conscious that the value the Commonwealth provides is often extremely different for different members. The smaller states in the Commonwealth find it a huge extension to their global engagement and an opportunity for them to express their strong concerns. For example, in developing a Commonwealth perspective on climate change, the small island states of the Pacific had a major role in explaining to their neighbours and Commonwealth partners just how vital the issue of climate change was for their future viability.
I was struck by the interpretation of the Commonwealth from the noble Lord, Lord Luce, so I will start with that. The Commonwealth is not like the EU or NATO. It is a very different organisation of networks, links, soft power as opposed to hard power, aspirations rather than obligations. That makes it very difficult to assess and to judge and very easy to get deeply frustrated with the moderate lack of progress. It is a loose and diverse association that has to be judged by criteria different from those we currently use to assess the EU, the transatlantic relationship or NATO. I say, as someone who occasionally reads the Europhobe blogosphere, that the Commonwealth is not an alternative to the EU and NATO. It is a very helpful complement to it, which the British Government and other members of the Commonwealth should do their utmost to develop to the full.
Some states fall some way short of the values that we have now agreed in the Commonwealth charter. A few sometimes fall a long way short and, as noble Lords will be well aware, every now and again a Commonwealth member falls so far short that its membership is suspended for a period. That is the way the Commonwealth works, but it works by consensus, not by qualified majority voting. Organisations that work by consensus move unavoidably and necessarily slowly. That can give rise to the more critical perspective presented by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, but we have different sorts of frustrations with the European Union and other tighter organisations than we do with the Commonwealth. We must make the best of what the Commonwealth is and not get too frustrated that it is not something else.
As noble Lords have suggested, there are several dimensions of the Commonwealth relationship. Shared values, shared heritage and shared approach to the rule of law are crucial and it is a major step forward that we have managed to agree the Commonwealth charter. Alongside good governance, rule of law and human rights, there is a commitment to development and assistance for sustainable development in particular that has taken us into the area of climate change in which, as a network that crosses regions and the developed and developing world, the Commonwealth has a very useful voice to play.
The Commonwealth has brought us all sort of human links between Britain and other Commonwealth countries. I spent a day canvassing in Southwark at the last election and was amazed by how many different Commonwealth countries I discussed with people I met on the doorstep. We have human links like dual citizenship and intermarriage and there is also increasingly a two-way link. Tata owns major British companies; we invest in India, the Indians invest in us. That is something else that we should exploit. This leads on to economic and commercial ties that we should be developing as much as we can. It is a concern that only 10% of Britain's exports currently go to the Commonwealth. It ought to be a great deal more. It is excellent that they are increasing, but that is not to say that we should be reducing the quantity of exports that go to the European Union; we should be exploiting Commonwealth markets as much as we can.
Then there is the global intergovernmental network, which brings together diverse states to discuss problems of common interest such as financial regulation, tax avoidance and tax havens, which again gives us the opportunity to talk to other important states. In recent years, the Commonwealth has necessarily been discussing renewal and modernisation. We have now agreed a limited reform agenda. The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group has been strengthened and Her Majesty's Government are committed to ensuring that the reforms agreed by Commonwealth heads of government are now implemented. We will monitor this closely, assess the impact of the adopted reforms and keep both Houses updated.
A key part of the reform agenda will be ensuring that the Commonwealth Secretariat sharpens its focus. The secretariat's new strategic plan is important to refocus Commonwealth programmes on the areas where it can add more value than other organisations. I note with interest the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, that we should be thinking about regional hubs for the secretariat in the future. That is probably something that needs to come from regional groups within the Commonwealth, but Her Majesty's Government would welcome such a development if viable proposals were put forward.
A number of noble Lords have spoken on the Commonwealth charter, the aspirations that it spells out and by how far a number of Commonwealth countries fall short of those aspirations. The noble Lord, Lord Black, spoke about problems of press freedom in a number of Commonwealth states, which are very much a matter of concern; the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, spoke about religious freedom and freedom of minorities; and a number of noble Lords spoke about the persecution of homosexuals, the death penalty and so on. I can assure noble Lords that Her Majesty's Government do raise those issues bilaterally and multilaterally within the Commonwealth. As I read diplomatic telegrams within the Foreign Office, I frequently see reports that Ministers have vigorously addressed these questions when talking to other members of the Commonwealth. We of course hope that other Commonwealth Governments do the same, and we work with them as much as we can.
It is one of the tragedies of where we are in the world that when we talk about protection of religious minorities, we have to admit that part of the surge of persecution of homosexuals in Africa at the present moment is being driven by competition among Pentecostal churches in some African countries, as well as by competition between Muslim and Christian churches on the great boundary between Islam and the world. However, Her Majesty's Government indeed raise these issues and work very hard to counter pressures in the opposite direction.
The noble Lord, Lord Luce, asked what was being done to strengthen the Commonwealth Foundation. DfID gives about £1 million a year to the foundation, which promotes democracy, good governance and sustainable development by strengthening links and dialogue between civil society organisations. The foundation has just agreed a new strategic plan that provides clear lines for its future action within civil society. We see the foundation's role at the People's Forum taking place in parallel with CHOGM as a useful and important supplementary role. The Foreign Secretary made a keynote speech in support of civil society at the People's Forum at CHOGM in 2011.
Noble Lords also mentioned the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, an independent trust to which a number of Commonwealth Governments have so far pledged support. Its intention is to promote additional Commonwealth scholarships, not just between Britain and other Commonwealth countries but-I am glad to say that this is beginning to develop-between different Commonwealth countries, not always including Britain. The Indian Government have, I am told, begun to develop in their own direction Commonwealth scholarships for students from other Commonwealth countries. That is how the Commonwealth should operate as a network.
The Diamond Jubilee Trust will run for five years, fundraising until October 2013, then distributing the funds and supporting the implementation of programmes for a further four years. It will focus on tackling avoidable blindness and youth leadership. It is now working out the detailed design of its programmes in both areas and aims to work with a broad coalition of partners.
The most difficult area that has been raised is the forthcoming CHOGM in Colombo. The Government of Sri Lanka face considerable challenges and Her Majesty's Government continue to raise questions about how well they are doing in post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation. My honourable friend Alistair Burt was in Colombo some weeks ago and, as well as the capital, he also visited the north of the country, in Tamil majority areas, to see what was happening on the ground. Some progress has been made, for example on economic development, demining and the rehabilitation of child soldiers.
On the other hand, we are distressed by the arrest of the chief justice and what that means for the rule of law within the country. We are clear that more needs to be done, such as on demilitarisation of the north, political settlement and accountability, and we continue to consider our position on what sort of representation we will provide for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting when it takes place.
A number of other countries were mentioned. The Gambia also concerns us to a considerable extent. I note that the Gambian Government have accused not Britain but the European Union of neocolonialism. There are severe problems in terms of how far one can bring pressure to bear on small countries. Apart from the United Kingdom Government and the European Union collectively, few other countries appear to be actively concerned about what is now happening.
There were a number of questions about election monitoring. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, that we are not aware of a request from the Government of Pakistan for the Commonwealth to monitor elections there. The Commonwealth responds to invitations to monitor, it does not invite itself and there has to be an invitation from the Government concerned. I entirely agree that these are key elections and we would very much like to see a Commonwealth monitoring mission. I am sure that everyone is aware that there is a Commonwealth electoral monitoring mission now in Kenya that is doing its best to monitor the elections there. In 2012, the Commonwealth observed elections in Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Lesotho and Ghana, so this is an active element in what the Commonwealth does.
My noble friend Lord Hussain raised the question of Kashmir. We all recognise the importance of finding a solution to the situation there. It is the key to reconciliation between India and Pakistan and is also an issue on the streets of a number of cities in Britain. We welcome the renewed engagement between India and Pakistan, but recognise that the reconciliation has to be led by those two countries above all. We are willing to provide all necessary resources to assist that process.
We are also concerned with what is happening in the Maldives. My extremely hard-working honourable friend Alistair Burt has just returned from the Maldives where he spoke to the President, opposition leaders and others and is best to assess the current situation. Both the Commonwealth Secretary-General and its special envoy, Sir Don McKinnon, have spoken of the importance of free, fair and inclusive elections in the Maldives, but the situation is still developing. We welcome the engagement of the Indian Government, but we are not entirely sure what the outcome will be.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, spoke passionately and pleasingly about relations between Ireland and the Commonwealth, with perhaps the prospect of Ireland joining. Her Majesty's Government would of course welcome such a prospect, but the initial request would appropriately come from Dublin and would be made to the Commonwealth secretariat and the Commonwealth as a whole, not to the United Kingdom. After all, Ireland has a very strong record in international peacekeeping since the Second World War, and a long tradition of development assistance to Africa, so it has many of the links that one would wish to see, and it self-evidently meets all the criteria for Commonwealth membership.
When Ireland joined the European Union, Garret FitzGerald said to me that joining the European Union was like gaining an additional dimension to Irish independence because it began to have a whole new set of international relationships. I suspect that if Ireland were to join the Commonwealth, it would extend this network even further. I hope that noble Lords have noted the innovation of a small joint UK-Irish military training team in Mali, which is another small but significant step: British and Irish military personnel working together in a peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction operation.
I rather hoped that the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, was going to ask about the Sandwich Islands. He asked about South Sudan. I do not think one can talk about an undue delay to South Sudan's application. There has to be a consensus among the 54 member states. South Sudan is a very new and still slightly fragile state. I have friends and relatives who are working there and I am aware of just how difficult they are finding it to reconstruct a governmental apparatus after the end of the conflict. There are major efforts by Her Majesty's Government and by agencies of other Commonwealth Governments, including South Sudan's southern neighbours, to assist.
I have touched a little on trade and prosperity. We are committed to strengthening trade links with partners across the world, including those in the Commonwealth. The enormously useful and important delegation that the Prime Minister has just taken to India is part of that process. We see this Commonwealth Week's theme of "Opportunity through Enterprise" as part of that process in which we build on our existing economic links with the Commonwealth. Commonwealth countries can also make excellent springboards into Asia and Africa. For example, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia link the Commonwealth to ASEAN-the Association of South-East Asian Nations-and Canada, of course, represents an important gateway to North America for many countries.
The Government are focused on building stronger links within the Commonwealth and strengthening the Commonwealth as a network of networks. We are taking a number of practical steps to strengthen our engagement in the Commonwealth, including strengthening our diplomatic network. We opened a new deputy high commission in Hyderabad in India last year; another will follow in Chandigarh. We are strengthening our commercial capacity in countries such as Canada, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea and Guyana. Here in London we have increased the number of staff working on the Commonwealth.
Our renewed focus has also involved a change in approach and in the way we work by seeking to make the most of our Commonwealth contacts. In the past 12 months FCO Ministers have visited around 20 Commonwealth countries. This has left us in a strong position to build on the progress we have already made on our Commonwealth agenda.
I am conscious that a number of noble Lords have mentioned the visa issue. We all recognise how delicate and difficult this issue is at present. I will take that away and feed it in to our continuing conversations.
This has been an invaluable debate. If I go on for more than another minute, I shall lose the rest of my voice, so let me sum up by saying that I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, again, for all the efforts he put in to raising the visibility of the Commonwealth as an issue in British foreign policy. I know that there are many in this House who have spent a good deal of their time and careers working on the Commonwealth connection. I hope that there will be many more and that the Commonwealth, with the efforts that we and many other Commonwealth countries will make, will remain a vital, vibrant and values-based international network.